Facebook announced they were restricting Australians from sharing news. The move was in response to a proposed law that Facebook characterized as misunderstanding the facts of how publishers interact with Facebook.
Australian News Media Bargaining Code
The News Media Bargaining Code is a law that was announced on December 8, 2020, the result of three years of deliberations.
According to an official Australian government overview, the purpose of the law was to create a framework for forcing Facebook and Google to negotiate with news organizations to arrange payment to them in exchange for hosting the news media content on their platforms.
One audacious demand was for Facebook and Google to provide news publishers fourteen days advance notice of algorithm changes.
This is how the overview describes it:
“…setting clear and workable minimum standards for digital platforms including requiring 14 days advance notice of deliberate algorithm changes that impact news media businesses.”
Will the Money Be Used to Support Journalism?
The goal of the payments is to support public interest journalism. But an official Australian government analysis of the law states that it is uncertain if the payments will serve that goal.
Here’s what it states (full document PDF here):
“…it remains to be seen whether any benefit gained by the registered news businesses is used to support public interest journalism.”
What that means is that the amendment has no teeth to enforce that the money paid will be used to support journalism. Australian news organizations are free to use the money to pay themselves bonuses or buy back stock.
The Relationship Between News Media and Tech Platforms
The law seeks to address a bargaining imbalance between the platforms and Australian news media.
But the reality is that the relationship between the platforms is that the platforms provide the benefit of massive traffic to the news organizations free of charge.
Facebook asserted that it is that misunderstanding and corresponding unfairness that underlies Facebook’s decision to block Australian news from its platform.
Facebook contrasted itself with Google by saying that news organizations participate in Google News involuntarily.
Whereas news organizations come to Facebook voluntarily to share their content and receive the benefit of search traffic of over five billion visitors that was worth approximately AU$407 million.
According to Facebook:
“The proposed law fundamentally misunderstands the relationship between our platform and publishers who use it to share news content.
It has left us facing a stark choice: attempt to comply with a law that ignores the realities of this relationship, or stop allowing news content on our services in Australia.
With a heavy heart, we are choosing the latter.”
More than Australian News Locked Out
Facebook’s Australian news lockout had a rocky rollout. According to a report published by a search marketing professional in Australia, Facebook’s algorithm has been making many mistakes by blocking the wrong entities or allowing news organizations to continue publishing.
“For instance, the government Bureau of Meteorology content has been removed. …The Queensland Government Health page has had its content removed. The non-profit organisation that speaks for people affected by poverty, ACOSS (Australian Council of Social Service) has had its content removed! Is the censorship algorithm looking for the word “news” in page descriptions and acting on it?”
Screenshot of Government Page with Posts Removed in Error
Other organizations with posts removed include:
- Virgin Australia airlines
- Australian Domino’s Pizza
- An Australian children’s cancer center
- A UK Alzheimer society
Screenshot of a UK Alzheimer Society Page
Elsewhere an Australian SEO was unable to share a link to his professional blog.
— Brodie Clark (@brodieseo) February 17, 2021
Even an Australian University was blocked.
Bond University has also been blocked. This is completely wild. https://t.co/5DxHYIj1Fn
— CB 🦊 (@claireinthesnow) February 18, 2021
Google continues to make payment deals with news organizations.
But Facebook is under no such pressure because Facebook doesn’t crawl and repurpose news articles. News organizations voluntarily use Facebook to promote their content.
The ball is clearly on the Australian government’s side.